One South Side success story is fighting for its future.
Tamya Fultz is a queen. But she doesn’t act like royalty.
An Englewood eighth-grader, the “chess queen of the South” is a soft-spoken ambassador for an Earle STEM Academy chess team that’s out to beat the world, despite team members’ struggles in their own backyards.
“Chess helps their life because sometimes they have problems at home,” Tamya said of her teammates. “It helps their grades, it helps them think more; make better choices.”
Unfortunately, this lifeline is in danger of disappearing without a source of funding. But that uncertainty hasn’t stopped Tamya.
Her skills and presence can be intimidating to her opponents. Take her opening round match at a tournament in Indianapolis, for example.
“I won in four moves, and he started crying,” Tamya said, smiling sheepishly.
In Illinois’ 2017 state chess tournament, she was the only girl among 25 finalists. She was also the only African-American. And the only Chicago Public Schools student.
Tamya has emerged as the undisputed leader of the team created by Earle math teacher Joe Ocol.
“You should see the kindergarten and first-graders coming in wanting to learn chess,” Joe said. “They want to be like Tamya. Tamya is their model.”
Her legacy is only growing. Earlier this year the Earle team brought back three trophies from the U.S. Chess Federation SuperNationals tournament in Nashville, the largest chess tournament in history.
Taahir Levi, Joe’s youngest player, took home first place in blitz in his division. (Blitz is a chess strategy game that requires a player to beat his or her opponent in less than five minutes.) Tamya won an individual trophy for her high placement, as did the team as a whole. In their division the Earle players were the only Illinois squad with a top 25 finish.
So much does Joe believe in the South Side squad that while financially stressed himself, he’s been paying thousands of dollars out of pocket to finance the team’s travel and tournament expenses.
“There is a lot of talent in Englewood,” Joe said. “They just need an opportunity to shine.”
But when he began teaching chess, Joe did not have trophies in mind. The goal was simple: safety.
In 2005, while Joe was teaching at Marshall High School on Chicago’s West Side, one of his students was shot and killed. He believes this student’s murder was meant as a warning from local gang members to other young men: Join or die.
Joe is no stranger to street violence. He grew up amid political conflict in the Philippines, and knew classmates who met the same end as his Marshall student. But this was different.
Inspired by an article detailing the “danger zone” for students between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., Joe started to teach chess after school. At first no one came. But free snacks began to attract a steady crowd. And slowly, champions began to emerge.
The latest is Taahir.
“Winning is the best part,” he said while sitting down for a practice match against Tamya. If she is Englewood’s magnanimous chess queen, Taahir is its puckish prince.
“It’s helped me,” he admits. “The mental strategy has helped me.”
But halfway through his match with the queen, Taahir forfeited. Ocol snapped to attention.
“You must never give up,” he said sternly. “Even if you are down, Taahir, you need to keep fighting. That is unacceptable. Do you understand me?”
Taahir nodded. This is why they’re champions.
The problem? Funding for the team has all but dried up. By himself, Ocol can no longer front the cost of travel and registration to give his kids the opportunities they would not be able to afford on their own. The ratings students receive in official play are crucial in winning scarce college scholarship money.
This is Tamya’s plan. She’s hoping to earn a spot in a selective-enrollment high school next year and work toward a scholarship to attend college for engineering.
“We try to teach the kids that the smallest piece can be the largest,” Tamya’s mother, Andrea, said. The weakest pieces on a chessboard can become powerful if used properly. “If this program dries up … their hearts would be crushed.”
Joe’s wish is for a consistent chess program that is not tied to school funding that too often doesn’t materialize. In addition to individual donations, he hopes to partner with a corporate sponsor, similar to what he’s seen Nike do for the hopes of high school basketball players across Chicago.
“We receive through giving,” Ocol said. He knows this better than most.
“If there has been one life saved in all these years, that is something to cherish.”
To invest in an Illinois success story by giving to the Earle chess team, click here.